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Tent rental companies grapple with COVID-19 cancellations

Industry News | March 13, 2020 | By:

Amid a wave of postponed and cancelled events, tent rental companies brace for the worst while attempting to find a “win-win” for themselves and their customers.

By Jill C. Lafferty

Tent rentals companies that were gearing up for a robust spring season, and those whose season was already underway, spent the week of March 9 scrambling to adjust as the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellations and postponements of all types of tented events.

Tommy Wilson, director of event services with All Occasions Event Rental, Cincinnati, Ohio, expects his company to have its lowest spring revenue in the last seven to ten years.

“Local, smaller stuff seems to be continuing—at least for now,” Wilson says. “The larger private events this week and next week are all being cancelled. Some even after we have delivered and set all the items.”

Scott Woodruff, Tent OX™ president and a former tent rental company owner, said that tent rental companies based in large cities, gateways for international travel, and the communities that are hardest hit by the virus are the most heavily affected, along with companies that focus mostly on commercial business. Smaller market companies, wedding-focused companies whose season hasn’t begun and those in more remote locations haven’t experienced the same level of cancellations.

With many universities moving to online learning for the rest of the academic year, companies expecting revenue from commencement events are especially hurt. Even if the virus threat clears quickly, Woodruff doesn’t expect that work to come back due to the logistics of bringing students back to campus.

“[Universities] represent a lot of business over the next three months,” he says. “The only time you are sold out on chairs and the labor that goes along with the tenting and the chairs is that May−June timeframe with the combination of the spring events, the university commencements and the following alumni weeks.”

For orders with deposits, All Occasions is allowing clients to reschedule up to 12 months from the original event date, Wilson says. Larger events (over $10k) are being discussed on a case by case basis. “Many are choosing to reschedule, but several have cancelled,” he adds.  

Mahaffey Event and Tent Rentals of Memphis, Tenn., is also working with its customers who are cancelling “right and left,” according the Mahaffey president George Smith.

“When an event cancels, if we are in the middle of it, we apply any cost, with no profit associated to the event, and then we will keep the deposit. But if they do the event again next year or in the future, we will apply the deposit to the rescheduled event,” Smith says.

Weddings appear more likely to go on, Smith adds, but clients are lowering the number of guests expected to attend.

“Brides are calling in and the numbers are down,” he says. “If it was a 200-person wedding, now it’s 75.”

Practically speaking, contractual language may provide little relief to tent rental companies that rely on their local reputation and community standing.

“We need to figure out how to make this a win-win for everybody and not get hurt,” Smith says. “We need to protect our company and protect our customers.”

Even when the crisis ends, tent rental companies may be challenged to manage postponed events, Woodruff says. “The thing that is encouraging and a problem is that many of these events have been rescheduled already for the September−October timeframe, and that’s going to put them on top of what is for many companies an equal level of busyness, and that might put them over what their normal capacity is.”

Woodruff expects that tent rental companies can expect some relief from lower fuel costs and potentially from an easing of the labor crisis if the unemployment rate increases.

“We’ve been in a market where tent rental companies haven’t been able to hire good people off the street for about three years,” he says. “I think that will open back up to where the quality will be better, and we can be less dependent on bringing in foreign labor on the exchange programs. Every big company made the decision three months ago to keep their staff through the winter so they would have quality staff in the spring, and now there’s no payoff for that. They’ve already been paying a premium where they could have done a layoff.”

Because this crisis is caused by a virus as opposed to another kind of disaster, Woodruff predicts that it will have subsided by late summer or early fall. “It will be business as normal, which is very different than [the recession in] 2008 and 2009 or 9/11,” he says. “When 9/11 hit, it wasn’t appropriate to do business like we used to. It changed the way the market was done. I don’t think this is going to be the case.”

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